School Names and the Place of the Confederacy in People’s Identity

[This piece appeared as an op/ed in newspapers in May, 2024.]


By the time this piece appears, I expect that Shenandoah County will have decided to change some school-names, reverting to those that honored Confederate heroes — like Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby-Lee Elementary School. (As far as I know, this would give Shenandoah County the distinction of being the first school district – among those around the old Confederacy that have abandoned pro-Confederate names – to reverse that change.)

That would affirm my previous judgment that, while the School Board of 2020 was right on the value of changing in that direction, it chose a counter-productive way of effecting change.

The culture of the region had long held the Confederacy as an important part of its identity. And while the School Board (of 2020) was right that there was something problematic about that, changing the names on buildings did nothing to change the cultural beliefs and feelings those Confederate names have been expressing.

Stonewall Jackson High School, it turns out, will remain the more valid “message” so long as a preponderance of the people of the area hold in their minds the understanding of the Confederacy that has been taught in the south for a century and a half. And so long as they feel that fierce loyalty that was expressed in the popular uprising that is restoring Stonewall Jackson’s name to the school.

Instead of changing the message of an unchanged pro-Confederate populace, the School Board might have raised the issue as “a teachable moment,” launching some kind of educational process. “Educational,” because the continuing celebration of the Confederacy among its heirs is built upon historical falsehoods.

And it is reasonable to assume that — if the people held a historically valid view of the history and meaning of the Confederacy — they would be more willing to define their identity differently.

With some creativity, a series of public meetings could have been organized to fashion constructive forms of dialogue, combined with an appropriate way of teaching the real history of the Confederacy, correcting the false history whose transmission the ruling powers of the South have enforced since immediately after the Civil War.

The real history shows that

• The Confederacy was about protecting the Slavery economy, and its ability to expand, as the leaders of the South made clear from the moment the process of secession began.
• Because it was all about the right of white people to treat black people as human livestock, the Confederacy itself was all about White Supremacy.
• The slave-holding elite, who were the only beneficiaries of slavery, was able to raise an army of men whom that slave-based economy actually made poorer.
• The South’s decision to secede – asserting a right that required being established by legal process – was lawless, and made it President Lincoln’s constitutional obligation to subdue that insurrection by force.
If they understood those realities, how many people would be passionate to celebrate as heroes those figures of the Confederacy?

What makes a change in that pro-Confederacy identity socially and politically desirable is that this enduring Confederate identity – like the Confederacy itself – has a destructive impact on the American body politic.
Destructive in that it stands for conflict: That Battle Flag came into existence in the context of a terrible Civil War, and it continues to be divisive in relation to the rest of America (that does not name its schools after Confederate generals).

The spirit expressed by the Stars and Bars flying on people’s flagpoles, and stuck onto vehicles, is one of anger, and resentment, and a strong Us-Vs.-Them way of looking at many of their fellow countrymen. (The wielding of pro-Confederate symbols expresses more the spirit that fired on Fort Sumter than an extension of a hand of goodwill and cooperation.)

And then there’s the element of race: history shows how central White Supremacy has been a part of the meaning of both the Confederacy – fighting for the system that allowed white people to own black people as property — and of the cultural-political force that has persisted since the Civil War (from generations of Jim Crow and enforced segregation to the current disenfranchisement of black people).

All that supports the desire of the 2020 School Board for Shenandoah County to define the County’s identity differently.

But it was unwise to ignore the reality and power of that well-entrenched identity.

How could changing Stonewall Jackson to Mountain View do anything but provoke those who have been taught to be fiercely loyal to their “heroic” Confederate ancestors.

Such identity and such loyalty go deep, and deep change is difficult to achieve.

But over time, things can change.

The School Board might have devised a good educational process to begin to overcome a century and a half of cultural teaching – at odds with historical reality — about the glories of the Confederacy.

It might take years, but eventually the point might be reached when the power of the historical truth, combined with the inevitable ongoing turnover of generations, would have so transformed the culture that changing of the school’s names would be possible without provoking the people to rise up to reverse it.

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